War Angst and Karaoke: Daily Life as Bizarre As it Gets in South Korea

By in Seoul

North Korea threatens to start a nuclear war, while South Korea dances Gangnam style. Those are the clichés. War has never been this close, but Koreans in Seoul confront their fears by going about a bizarre version of everyday life, complete with truffle pasta and super-smart phones.

A few hours before another ultimatum is set to expire, Seoul is transformed into a sea of fire. Fountains of flames encompass a glass stage in the broadcast studio at the South Korean state television network KBS, where the girls of Girl's Day are performing their new hit. It's the Friday before last, "Music Bank" day. The program is broadcast live every week to 72 countries, and the studio in the southern part of Seoul is filled with excited fan clubs and steams with puberty. Girl's Day sings a song called "Expectation," which isn't a bad way to describe a time when the whole world is wondering whether nuclear war could erupt in Asia tomorrow -- or whether it's all nothing but a show.

The girls are swaying to the music in the KBS studio, an amphitheater with steep rows of seats. Many have come straight from school and are still wearing their uniform, a white blouse with a tartan skirt. The girls stood in line outside for hours, shivering on a cool, rainy day. K. Will sings his chart-topping song "Love Blossom," followed by performances by the pop duo Davichi, an R&B boy group called SHINee and 4Minutes, another girl band. They are the sweet idols of a pan-Asian youth, made-in-Korea stars with a following as far away as Singapore, Tokyo and Jakarta. Whenever there is a break in the music, the audience shouts their names -- it's a party in the midst of the recent crisis and saber rattling.

One of the shouting audience members is Jang Seul Gi, an 18-year-old girl from the Seoul suburb Namyangju. She won her coveted ticket in a lottery and is wearing a compress over her right eye, which is infected. She and her girlfriends endured a two-hour bus ride, changing buses several times, so that they could experience this teen pop extravaganza in person. The girls already begin to shriek when the slim members of the boy band start making noise in the shadows offstage, just before their appearance. An ultimatum? Suel Gi doesn't know anything about that, or about the "serious consequences" with which the South Korean government has threatened the North Koreans once again. Seul Gi has other concerns.

The 'Beauty Belt'

The girl from the suburbs would like to have a smaller face and bigger breasts, a better nose and a prettier chin. It's a dream she shares with many of her female friends, and it's on full display on the walls of passageways in Seoul Metro stations, which would all serve as bomb shelters in the event of a war. There are before-and-after ads for beauty clinics, depicting girls who have been transformed into almost monstrous creatures, with the saucer-like eyes of a Disney cartoon character. Kim Soo Shin gives people those kinds of eyes.

He's one of the established cosmetic surgeons on the "Beauty Belt" in Seoul's Gangnam district, south of the sluggish, wide Han River. Contrary to its name, Real, his clinic deals in unreal beauty. He can handle 50 to 60 customers during the winter season. He has even surgically removed the bags under the eyes of his 74-year-old mother.

Asked by the journalist why his business is doing so well in South Korea, he responds that he has both a humorous and a serious answer. The humorous one is: "When you have an empty brain, you need an attractive face." The serious answer has to do with the fact that South Korean women have become more self-confident, especially since the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Besides, says Kim, women have more and more money and less and less to do these days, "so they have an incredible amount of time to admire themselves in the mirror."

As a young man, Dr. Kim once spent six months in a South Korean prison, because he had a friend who had met North Korea's "Great Leader," Kim Il Sung. The judges accused him of involvement in communist activities and found it questionable that he had specialized in reattaching the severed fingers of workers, charging a very low fee for the procedure. When he opened his own cosmetic surgery clinic in 1991, he had only two competitors. "Today," he says, "there are 300 clinics in business in this area." This is in keeping with the overall impression the West has formed of Korea.

Heavy Historical Baggage

Over the decades, the world has become accustomed to painting North Korea in the blackest and South Korea in the most pristine terms, with the north being run by a sinister dictatorship and the south a cheerful democracy. The rest of the world sees the north as a place where people are starving and oppressed, while South Koreans are free and happy consumers. While the clichés about the north may not be entirely wrong, South Korea is a grayer and more troubled country than its image would suggest.

The heavy historical baggage of a country that was a Japanese colony, a battlefield and a military dictatorship in the 20th century is on full display in Seoul's brand-new National Museum of Korean Contemporary History, on the city's opulent grand boulevard, Sejong-daero. The exhibits there highlight the deep, old wounds of a divided nation, wounds that no economic miracle can heal.

The last few exhibit rooms are a lie by omission, a collection of the most beautiful Samsung smartphones and Hyundai limousines, with PSY performing his hit song "Gangnam Style" on a giant wall of monitors. But what the exhibits ignore is the unhealthy power of the South Korean industrial conglomerates, and the sleaze and political corruption plaguing the country. They fail to mention the omnipresent press censorship or the authoritarian impulses of the current administration, evidenced most recently by the fact that the new president, Park Geun-hye, daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee, has just signed a law that regulates the wearing of miniskirts.

No one talks about the fact that South Korea has the highest suicide rate of all industrialized countries, with 40 people committing suicide every day -- a rate three times as high as in Germany. And hardly anyone mentions what the nightmare of potential nuclear obliteration really does to a country.

A Dramatic Intensification of the Conflict

In fact, the rest of the world pays more attention to the constantly simmering Korean conflict than the country itself, whose very existence would be threatened in the event of a war. While each new shady maneuver by the north creates headlines in the West, in the south reporting on Pyongyang's actions tends to be detached and routine by nature. Over the decades, the country has learned to treat the constant rhetoric coming from Pyongyang as empty threats. But perhaps it has also forgotten how to recognize real danger.

Depending on how you look at it, the current crisis began two, 19 or 60 years ago, while its low points are being reached today, in February, March and April of this year. The Korean War ended without a peace treaty 60 years ago, the "Great Leader Kim Il Sung" died 19 years ago and was succeeded by the "Dear Leader Kim Jong Il" and, when he died two years ago, the "Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un" came into power. Despite what we are told by the chattering experts in the broadcast media, almost nothing is known about Kim Jong Un. It is clear, however, that the Supreme Leader is in the process of shaping a new policy.

The world was shocked on Feb. 12, when North Korea conducted a third nuclear test. The incident triggered meetings and new sanctions by the United Nations Security Council, NATO sessions and a flurry of diplomatic activity. There were maneuvers over South Korea involving B-2 stealth bombers, US missiles were moved and the armies of the south and the north were placed on high alert, all within a few weeks.

North Korea abrogated various treaties and severed its hotline with the south, generals appeared in public, and Pyongyang promised a total nuclear war, one that would transform Seoul into a sea of flames. Missiles were tested, and North Korea aired propaganda videos that depicted Washington being bombed and Seoul being captured.

In March, the regime in Pyongyang threatened, for the first time in history, to launch a nuclear attack against the United States and South Korea, while the government in Seoul announced its intention to level Pyongyang. In early April, the north announced that it was restarting the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, which was shut down six years ago. Foreigners in South Korea were advised to leave the country. Pyongyang barred South Korean access to the Kaesong industrial zone, and the South Korean government delivered its ultimatum.

The ultimatum expired without response on the Friday before last, while the streets and alleys of Gangnam and Seoul's Itaewon shopping district were filled with carefree consumers. The bars were full and the windows of restaurants were fogged up. No one seemed interested in the ultimatum or the closing of Kaesong. South Koreans were left cold by the fact that the north had initially withdrawn its 53,000 workers in the special economic zone on the North Korean side, while the south has now shuttered its 123 factories there. In fact, the closing of Kaesong marked a dramatic intensification of the conflict, a terrible setback, and yet no one is paying attention anymore. South Korea has other worries.

When the new fashions from Paris and Milan arrive on Apgujeong Street in the south of Seoul, a chain of giant flagship stores unlike anything else in the world, a pilgrimage begins throughout much of Asia, as wealthy women from Japan, China, Russia and Indonesia fly in for an intense shopping spree. The Galleria shopping mall is filled with an unprecedented collection of luxury boutiques, and the floor maps read like catalogs of the world's most expensive name brands. Shoppers can dine on foie gras, truffle pasta and sashimi from the Red Tuna in the food court on the lower level.

The number of visitors to South Korea has crumbled since the north began fanning the flames of possible war. The Japanese, in particular, have made themselves scarce. The country's tourism association is reporting dramatic declines, with only 88,000 tourists coming from Japan in the first two weeks of April, a 33-percent decrease over the same period last year. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is striking at his South Korean enemy without the use of bombs and missiles. While his threats may not be reaching Seoul, they are heard in Tokyo and Beijing. Kim is resorting to the tactics of the former Cold War.

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